Mental Health Benefits of Exercise
By: Jaclyn Kotora, Contributing Writer
Edited by: Olivia Storti, Editor; Elias Azizi, Editor in Chief
Exercise is known to affect your physical health substantially, but movement also has many benefits on your mental health and well-being. It can help manage symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, ADHD, and PTSD while also being a good mood and energy booster. Physical activity can help manage mental health problems. However, it is important that you exercise safely and intuitively to avoid further harm to your body or mind.
Exercise can also help people manage depression. As explained by Mayo Clinic, physical activity can help decrease depression by “releasing feel-good endorphins, natural cannabis-like brain chemicals (endogenous cannabinoids) and other natural brain chemicals that can enhance your sense of well-being”. Additionally, while it is not always the best strategy for coping, exercise takes the mind off worrisome thoughts for some time so you can step away from the cycle of negative thoughts in the brain that often fuels depression. In a controlled study exploring the connection between depression and exercise, adults with major depressive disorders were placed into one of four groups: supervised exercise, home-based exercise, antidepressant therapy, or a placebo pill. After treatment, it was observed that patients in the exercise and antidepressant groups had higher rates of remission than did the patients on the placebo, signifying that physical activity was generally comparable to antidepressants for patients with major depressive disorder (American Psychological Association).
Exercise has also been proven to help anxiety and stress by boosting your physical and mental energy and releasing endorphins (peptide hormones that relieve pain and create a feeling of well-being). Mindful movement is also a helpful distraction from anxiety and helps one become more present. Focusing on mindfulness throughout the exercise can further calm anxiety by interrupting the flow of worries in the mind. Lawrence Robinson, Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., and Melinda Smith, M.A. from HelpGuide suggest, “Try to notice the sensation of your feet hitting the ground, for example, or the rhythm of your breathing, or the feeling of the wind on your skin… physical activity helps to relax the muscles and relieve tension in the body. Since the body and mind are so closely linked, when your body feels better, so, too, will your mind.” Additionally, exercise can serve as exposure therapy for a person's fight or flight responses when faced with anxiety. Many of the symptoms of anxiety-like heavy perspiration and increased heart rate—are also the feelings in effect of exercise. Jasper Smits, Ph.D., Co-Director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Program at Southern Methodist University, states, “Subjects who participated in a two-week exercise program showed significant improvements in anxiety sensitivity compared with a control group… People learn to associate the symptoms with safety instead of danger."
Other mental health disorders like ADHD and PTSD can be managed through exercise. Physical activity boosts dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin levels in the brain, which affects focus and attention, reducing the symptoms of ADHD, while also improving concentration, memory, and motivation. “In this way, exercise works in much the same way as ADHD medications such as Ritalin and Adderall,” explains HelpGuide. This increased level of focus and concentration during movement can also alleviate the symptoms of PTSD or trauma. By being mindful of your body and how it feels during exercise, it can help get the nervous system out of the immobilized stress response. It keeps your mind from wandering and instead focuses on the physical sensations of the body.
Physical activity is generally helpful for overall mental well-being by improving thinking, self-esteem, sleep, energy, and resilience. In terms of memory and focus, “the same endorphins that make you feel better also help you concentrate and feel mentally sharp for tasks at hand. Exercise also stimulates the growth of new brain cells and helps prevent age-related decline,” says HelpGuide. Exercise can give you a sense of achievement or fulfillment because it makes you feel like you are doing something good for yourself by investing in your mind, body, and soul. Not to mention, physical activity promotes sleep and boosts physical and mental energy throughout the day. Perhaps one of the best benefits is increased resilience, not only physically but mentally. Exercise helps build resilience and helps one cope when faced with different types of challenges.
This does not mean you have to run to the gym and get a membership, though – you can come up with creative exercises at home, like mowing the lawn, cleaning the house, dancing to music, and much more. One can also implement more physical activity in their daily routines, taking the stairs instead of taking the elevator, walking or biking to a place instead of driving, or parking at the far back of the parking lot. Social exercise also motivates physical activity and promotes interaction. Do a family or friend group exercise, or play a soccer game with your kids or play some basketball with friends. There are many ways to get active and promote mental well-being, and it can be in a fun, low-pressure, and mindful environment.
As explained previously, while exercise can be a beneficial coping method, it must be done in an intuitive way, meaning one listens to their body and understands their boundaries. Exercise should not feel like a chore or a task you must check off a to-do list. Focus on finding a type of exercise that you enjoy and feels good for your body. By focusing on how your body feels rather than how much weight you lost or how many calories you burn, you are more likely to benefit from all of the mental health effects of exercise explained earlier. Exercise should be self-care, not punishment. Harvard Health Publishing advises, “Listen to your body. Hold off on exercise when you're sick or feeling very fatigued. Cut back if you cannot finish an exercise session, feel faint after exercise or fatigued during the day, or suffer persistent aches and pains in joints after exercising.” Make sure to listen to your body cues and do not push yourself too far and risk your physical or mental health.
Exercise is a highly beneficial mechanism for managing mental health problems and promoting well-being. You do not have to devote hours of your time to exercise in a gym or at home, as every bit of activity is beneficial. When I exercise, I focus on the feeling it gives my body: the rush of adrenaline, the energy enhancer, the mood booster, the blood moving through my body— the sensations that make both my body and mind feel good. No matter one’s current fitness level, this mindful movement can be a potent tool in improving well-being.